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Torture – Testimonial Therapy - Justice - Cambodia

Published 28.07.2010

RCT welcomes the United Nations backed tribunal in the Courts of Cambodia (“ECCC”) on the delivery of its first verdict on 26 July this year in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Comrade Duch”, the first senior cadre to be brought to justice for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge more than a quarter of a centure ago

At least 1.7 million Cambodians, fully one quarter of the population, died as a result of the oppressive policies imposed by the Khmer Rouge, with execution, starvation, exhaustion from slave labor, malnutrition, and torture as the leading causes of death.

Duch was the former torturer and inspector of the infamous S21 torture prison, situated in centre of Phnom Penh. He was convicted of horrendous crimes against humanity and war crimes, Duch was given a prison sentence of 35 years. With time served and the five year reduction, the sentence is reduced to 19 years; and many survivors are unhappy and upset with this - in their view - lenient sentence. Undeniably, with the deaths of at least 12,273 prisoners tortured and murdered at the Tuol Sleng torture centre S21 on his hands, the sentence may appear to be a light one. No sentence seems to measure up to the atrocities that Duch committed.

Alex Hinton, director of the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights at Rutgers University in New Jersey is quoted in New York Times, on 27 July, 2010; "For 30 years, the victims of the Khmer Rouge waited while a civil war raged, international actors bickered and the leaders of the Khmer Rouge walked free. Now, for the first time, one of them has been held accountable. The importance of this moment can't be underestimated.

RCT has followed this first tribunal case with great attention. The court hearings have revived stressful memories for the people who suffered severe trauma under the Khmer Rouge regime and retraumatizations of individual victims are likely to occur. Victims and witnesses who testified in the court are the most vulnerable groups who will suffer from psychological problems from the process of the tribunal. The courtroom included some survivors of the prison Duch ran - three of whom had testified about the torture inflicted upon them. Duch was efficient in his operation, during which confessions - some of them reportedly running to hundreds of typed pages - were extracted by torture before the prisoners were sent in trucks to the killing fields.

RCT has cooperated with the Cambodian mental health organization, TPO Cambodia, for a few years. TPO Cambodia is a mental health organization with an extraordinary long professional record of offering assistance to trauma victims. TPO found early on that it was important for the succees of the tribunal that witnesses were motivated to deliver their testimony statement against the Khmer Rouge people. TPO has been concerned about anticipated "re-traumatization" of victims of the genocide who were asked to testify in public.

During 2009 RCT introduced the Testimonial Therapy (TT) through training assistance to TPO Cambodia, with a view to strengthening the psychosocial support for victims/witnesses during the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The Testimonial Therapy may offer additional psychological support for the witnesses called to the Tribunal, and TPO wanted to use the testimonial/counseling method in their project of "Psychosocial support for Victims and Witnesses during the Khmer Rouge Tribunal". They also wanted addtional key counselors/participants from other projects to learn this very important therapeutic skill.

The Testimonial Method represents a form of brief psychological therapy which elicits a detailed self report of events of torture endured by a survivor. The process of obtaining the document represents a form of "exposure therapy", and prior studies have confirmed mitigating effects of this therapy on residual stress symptoms such as PTSD. Additionally, the therapy results in the production of a document that can serve as a basis for advocacy and indemnity for the affected individual, as well as a broader chronicle of torture and organized violence to be brought to the attention of international regulatory bodies working to ensure protection of human rights. The TT introduced by RCT was culturally and contextually adjusted to reflect Cambodian values, with a healing ceremony for the victims after they had completed their testimonies.

Survivors find themselves living in a society that has not yet fully recovered from this trauma. The speed of recovery from a mental health disorder in Cambodia is allegedly slow compared to mental health surveys in other conflict affected countries such as Afghanistan and East Timor. Governmental mental health services are very limited, due to lack of funding and a shortage of qualified personnel, and cannot accommodate the large number of psychologically traumatized survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. There are only 26 psychiatrists in Cambodia, mostly in the urban areas.

TPO Cambodia is also interested in strengthening their mental health assistance to victims of present torture. Torture is unfortunately used in police stations in Cambodia for extracting information, forcing confessions, and for punishment from the persons who are entrapped. The Testimonial Therapy may also offer relief to these victims in combination with other types of support.

The tribunalnow moves to "Case Two," for which four high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials are in custody awaiting trial sometime next year. The  leader of Khmer Rouge, Saloth Sar - better known as Pol Pot, died in 1998.

For more information about testimonial therapy or about RCT co-operation with TPO in Cambodia, please contact Programme manager Erik Wendt on


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